by Anne Collier
In this latest phase of the Web, when anybody can be a publisher, videographer, or instant celebrity, many parents are concerned about what can happen to their kids' reputations and future prospects. We're beginning to see news reports picking up on this (see "What you say online could haunt you" in USATODAY, "Whose space is it, anyway?" in the San Jose Mercury News, and a more recent piece in the Grand Rapids [Mich.] Press). It's getting to the point where kids will need spin-doctor skills (see my item on this last June).
Parents' concerns are valid for several reasons: 1) The "you can't take it back" issue – people's photos and comments can instantly be passed along and/or archived on the Web virtually forever, beyond the original uploader's control; 2) reports are multiplying that school administrators, law-enforcement people, and other authorities are checking out teens' blogs and profiles (and probably anyone considering them for job or academic opportunities); and 3) somebody needs to be thinking about online teens' futures, because – though this is changing as public awareness grows – teens themselves say they don't think about this much as they do their blogging and social-networking.
"Parents are well advised," said Mary Leary, deputy director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Office of Legal Counsel, "to realize that whenever images of a child exist, no matter the context in which they were created, that child is at risk of exploitation as long as cellphone cameras, the Internet, email, etc. exist, and children should avoid such images ever existing. They are images over which these children will never have control."
There are two basic ways content lives on forever in cyberspace:
Peers pass stuff along
Well, peers and strangers, but more likely someone a teenager knows. Teens can lose control of their words and media in way too many ways, e.g., a comment, photo, or video emailed, uploaded, IM'd, or shared on P2P file-sharing networks or in old Internet technologies like newsgroups. Once something's in a Web site, shared via P2P, or sent to a friend by cellphone, IM, or email, anyone can grab it, copy 'n' paste it, pass it along, or upload it to a myriad sites and services. It may be something a friend shares unthinkingly, or it might be passed along "as a joke" or maliciously, by an ex-friend who somehow got the originator's IM or email password. A tragic example is detailed in "Teen photos & a police officer's story," in NetFamilyNews 1/20/06. If it's in somebody's personal Web site somewhere, it could be there forever, accessible to anyone's favorite search engine.
A somewhat strange example is a Kansas City dad's apparently well-intentioned attempt to alert local parents to kids' risky online behavior by creating a Web site that lists and links to local kids' Xanga and MySpace profiles, in alphabetical order by their first names (see KMBC-TV's report).
The permanent Internet Archive
Even after personal Web pages, blogs, and social-networking profiles are deleted, they can live on at . Founded in 1996, the nonprofit Internet Archive "was founded to build an 'Internet library' … offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format" – not to preserve teen socializers' content, of course. But if a page has a URL (its own Web address) and it was on the Web anytime after 1996, it's very probably in the Archive (which contains more than 55 billion Web pages, continuously "crawled" by the Archive's search-engine-like spider bots).
The good news is, college admissions people, prospective employers, or future political opponents can't search for your son or daughter's name in this online library. The Archive's Wayback Machine – a special search engine that shows how a page changed over time – only searches by URL (a page's Web address). Also, only public pages are crawled and archived. If a blogger uses privacy features restricting public access, his/her content won't be captured by the Archive's Web crawlers, an Archive spokesperson told me.
A video in YouTube.com also wouldn't make it into the Archive. "We capture straight html, jpegs, gifs, etc.," the spokesperson said. "YouTube uses Flash, and we can't capture Flash" – though people can upload videos in the right format directly to the Archive, she added (see this FAQ item). For the formats the Archive can accept for text, audio, and video, see this FAQ answer.
People can ask this permanent Archive to remove their pages, providing they have those pages' URLs. If you've found your page (type the URL into the search box on the home page) and want it deleted, you can email the Internet Archive with the URL and your request (info at archive dot org). Allow for "about a two-day turnaround," Archive folk say. [There are instructions and a removal policy in the site FAQ, but the instructions are more for Webmasters and site owners.]